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With the Central Mass. Business Confidence Index now indicating business leaders are pessimistic about the economy, the Federal Reserve Bank expected to raise interest rates again this year, and a tight labor market, it seems like a tough time to start a business.
Yet, economic conditions do not necessarily kill the imagination of entrepreneurs. Great ideas can happen in any economy, said Worcester angel investor Timothy Loew.
“Angel-level investing is impervious to market conditions,” said Loew. “There are always new ideas.”
Loew, along with investor Zachary Dutton, founded a Worcester-based coalition of angel investors called The Wire Group. The group invests up to $150,000 a year in high-growth startups and aims to keep 20% of its funding with businesses in Greater Worcester.
The Wire Group is part of an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Central Mass. designed to help potential founders turn their ideas into reality, where the right programs and advice can be the difference between a concept never getting off the ground and an investment-ready startup with a tested concept and a well-conceived business plan.
One company making its way through this process is eSki, an electric personal watercraft startup founded by Worcester Polytechnic Institute graduate Jack Duffy-Protentis. eSki worked with members of WPI Business School’s Business Development Lab’s Advisors Mentors and Partners (AMP!) program to put on a high-profile June 27 event at the Lake Quinsigamond boat ramp attended by 46 people, including Congressman Jim McGovern (D-Worcester), Worcester Mayor Joe Petty, and other Worcester and Shrewsbury officials.
The event led to media outlets MassLive and Community Advocate writing lengthy features on eSki and Duffy-Protentis, raising the company’s profile in the business community.
“I’m looking forward to seeing what they’re doing in a year,” said Loew, of The Wire Group, which hasn’t invested in eSki yet but is aware of its efforts.
In the heat of summer, personal watercraft cutting through the water are a common sight on lakes throughout Central Mass. While fun for the riders, they are loud, usually around 110 decibels, and can belch smoke, emitting almost 250 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour.
eSki wants to change the $1.5-billion global personal watercraft market by selling a fully-electric, battery-powered version, cutting down on the noise and carbon dioxide. Since his graduation in December 2020, Duffy-Protentis has started his company, assembled a team, built a concept model, is working on a prototype, filed two patents (with more in the works), and is taking preorders.
Founded officially in September 2021, eSki put together a full-size concept model and brought it to the 2022 Miami Boat show in February. Duffy-Protentis knew the boat show was a key venue to show off recreational watercraft and so one of his early goals was to exhibit there. The design, which is more sparse and efficient looking because it isn’t built around a gasoline engine, was well received, Duffy-Protentis said.
“If you’re going to build the next generation of personal watercraft, why not make it look like the next generation of personal watercraft?” he said.
Riding an eSki will feel familiar to people who use PWCs but a bit newer because of increased torque due to the electric motor, like driving an electric car for the first time, he said.
One of the striking differences would be the relative silence of the eSki. In his Webster Street facility, Duffy-Protentis started up the PWC and revved it to more than 2,000 RPM without disrupting the conversation. The machine was quieter than a kitchen blender.
In order to begin manufacturing, eSki will need to obtain a significant amount of funding, which means learning to pitch to investors. Duffy-Protentis would like to manufacture an initial run of 250 vehicles.
The electric vehicle environment has been building and seeing tremendous investing, said Loew of The Wire Group. “The window is still open for companies with good ideas and good tech,” he said.
To gain experience pitching to investors, Duffy-Protentis participated in the AMP! Startup Pitch Event on June 1 at the invitation of WPI Entrepreneur-in-Residence Darnell Dunn. The event gave Duffy-Protentis the opportunity to showcase his business to potential investors and mentors.
Dunn helped eSki promote the June 27 unveiling event at a Lake Quinsigamond boat ramp, and Dunn hopes eSki can work more with WPI’s Business Development Lab. That can lead to eSki connecting with investors who will not only provide money, but business expertise and connections.
eSki is not short on connections as its board of advisors includes people from technology and industrial companies Raytheon Technologies and John Deere, as well as bankHometown of Oxford.
A key to attracting investors is patents and intellectual property, said Loew. eSki has patented its battery technology allowing the PWCs to quickly swap out spent batteries and get back out on the water, something Duffy-Protentis said would be valuable to rental companies. eSki's product, Trident ES1, will be equipped with rear lights to indicate when it's slowing down, and Duffy-Protentis holds the patent for this technology as well.
From an investment and money-raising standpoint, it is possible for a company to capitalize on its intellectual property, Dunn said, but that is akin to hitting a single or a double in baseball. A grand slam is scaling the business to becoming a major manufacturing firm.
Though a native of Easton, Duffy-Protentis is grateful to the community of Worcester and wants to create jobs here. He wants to employ people from marginalized communities like himself. He was diagnosed with Stargardt disease in 2006, leaving him legally blind. Adonis, his friendly service dog, accompanies him throughout his day.
People with disabilities are often overlooked because they don’t fit into people’s ideas of competence, said Duffy-Protentis. With a note of frustration, he recounted the story of a blind man he knew who worked as a janitor because he had trouble finding other work because of people’s perception of his disability. By building a business where he can employ dozens, Duffy-Protentis could put in the work to help people like that janitor achieve their potential.
As Duffy-Protentis works to bring eSki toward that goal, Greater Worcester has programs in place designed to help. One of those programs, StartUp Worcester, is an initiative of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce, new business resource program The Venture Forum, and downtown incubator WorcLab. StartUp Worcester aims to attract businesses to Worcester and to retain and incubate businesses founded here.
At Clark University, former state representative Bob Spellane is the interim regional director of another organization providing help to entrepreneurs: the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, a program funded by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
Spellane said Worcester's strengths as a location for startups stems from the rich diversity of the community, how consumers in the city embrace small business, and the cost of doing business in Worcester being less than other areas in the state. Central Massachusetts’ economic legacy as an historic manufacturing center would seemingly help a company like eSki usher more manufacturing into the region.
While still in the early stages of building his business, Duffy-Protentis from his shop in a former wire factory on Webster Street hopes to benefit the people around him, the environment, and people who want to enjoy a day on the lake.